Very good, with minor flaws
K. Kehler | B.C., Canada | 12/14/2006
(4 out of 5 stars)
"This film version of Verdi's Othello -- directed and conducted by Herbert Von Karajan, a man of many talents -- is excellent in many respects, and more than adequate in most. The occasional variation in decibel level is perhaps the only flaw. Buckets of water (intended to serve as the spray of breakers) aside, the 'special affects' are pretty good. The film is nicely filmed; there were times I was convinced they'd found some Maltese castle, but apparently it was done in a Berlin studio. The camera moves subtly and slowly, with none of the frenetic movement (let alone car chases, etc.) that would probably characterize a film version today.
Desdemona would ideally be played by a younger woman than Mirella Freni, but her voice is fine, and her acting gives us a convincing Desdemona (loving and innocent). Peter Glossop is a very good, and sufficiently scary, Jago. He conveys well the moral elusiveness of the part, as well as the earnestness that compels Otello to trust him. Jon Vickers' gravity-defying hair is reminiscent of 1970s televangelists, but his voice is superb and his acting is good. He has a phenomenal presence; the nonchalance of Otello, which is importantly suggestive of his inner strength and confidence, is conveyed ever so well. That said (according to the accompanying description of the performance), Vickers deliberately stammers a line early on in the love duet to foreshadow an element of anxiety/fear. But overall to see him next to Jago is to see a lion next to a jackal. And yet the smooth 'jackal' wins, and the powerful, passionate 'lion' loses.... It is quite moving.
The Times (of London) described this as 'one of the best filmed operas ever made'. Perhaps this was true when it was first made (1974). Still, it has stood the test of time."
Make that five stars with some reservations
C. Boerger | Columbus, OH USA | 05/16/2006
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Prior to buying this, I already owned two magnificent DVDs of Otello, so why bother with a third? First, this is a film as opposed to a staged production, so I was curious about what Herbert von Karajan could do with this opera, having already fallen in love with his film of Carmen. Second, this is Otello, often called the greatest and most perfect opera ever written, and a personal favorite of mine. Finally, I took a look at the names on the credits: von Karajan, Jon Vickers, Mirella Freni. That pretty much sealed the deal. After all, a person can never get too much of Otello.
Was it worth it? Overall, the answer is a resounding yes. As he did with Carmen, von Karajan has created a beautiful film that captures the essence of Verdi's music and themes. From a visual standpoint, this stands as one of the best opera films I've seen. Otello is an opera that starts with a bang, ends with a whimper, and the movie follows suit, opening with a convincing and violent seaside storm, ending with Otello's regret-filled death where he seems to simply fall asleep at Desdemona's side. In between those stunning moments is a film of great beauty and depth. The look of von Karajan's Otello is brooding and mysterious which matches the haunting music. The violence of the sea, the dark inner chambers contrast with bright outdoor scenes, capturing not only the contrasting souls of Otello and Desdemona but also the conflicting characteristics of Otello himself. Otello wants to be good, loyal, noble, in fact he IS all of these things throughout many aspects of his life and career, but there is an inner demon driving him toward his doom. Some might say that demon is Iago, but I see Iago as the impetus, the demon is something that dwells within and has always been there, long before the arrival of the story's "villain." In fact, I have always thought of Iago as less a flesh and blood character, more a manifestation of the Moor's own insecurities, his private yearnings and jealousies, his private rage, Otello's alter ego if you will. Von Karajan explores this provocative idea by casting a performer who looks quite similar to the actor portraying Otello.
Which brings me to the performances. Before Placido Domingo owned the role of Otello(and rightly so), the part belonged to the great heldentenor Jon Vickers. What is it about Vickers that makes him so good at playing deranged characters, Don Jose, Samson, Tristan, Peter Grimes and Otello? Possibly, it's his face, his weathered and wounded features, or perhaps that piercingly beautiful voice of his, that tragic quality of eternal longing and deep-seated despair. At any rate, I'm not sure if there has ever been a better Otello, a singing actor who brings the character's demons and pathos to life so convincingly. Mirella Freni captures both the strength and fragility of Desdemona, both through her appearance and her devastating singing. Her performance is solid throughout, but her Willow Song and Ave Maria are the highlight, under her command they become masterpieces of mood and transcendence, the calm before the storm, and even after dying she is still effective, looking lovely and heartbreaking, enough to melt the heart of the raging Otello. Peter Glossop captures the diabolical essence of Iago, making the character both despicable and seductive, so it is easy to imagine Otello being taken in. Oh, and his baritone voice is ideal for the role, masculine, deep, powerful, without being the slightest bit ragged.
Okay, so it's five stars for the opera(that goes without saying) and five stars for the film. So why am I hesitant to slap an unqualified five star rating on this puppy? Two reasons. One, the sound quality is less than stellar, it fluctuates throughout, with some of the quieter moments barely audible while the louder moments practically thunder out of the TV set. Visually the transfer is pristine, hardly grainy at all, you would think Deutsche Gramophone could have done a better job at remastering and balancing the sound. My second qualm: von Karajan commits the almost unforgivable sin of cutting part of E piangi!, the third act closer, that long and extraordinary number which starts quietly as an aria for Desdemona, builds into a full-blown ensemble and climaxes with a shattering crescendo. I admit, I'm something of a purist, on the whole I'm opposed to any cuts, especially to as lean a work as Otello, but when the cut happens to be in my favorite number in the whole opera I get especially irked. Granted, most of the piece is there, some listeners might not even notice the two or three minutes taken out, but I was annoyed. What's the point? The film, already close to two and a half hours long, would have been a few minutes longer. So what? The audience for this film isn't the multiplex crowd, people with low attention spans, it's opera lovers, people who don't care about sitting through a few extra minutes, they actually prefer it if it means preserving the integrity of the work. As I said, I was annoyed...but not enough to damn the project as a whole.
Because this is an artful Otello, a memorable Otello, an Otello I am very happy to own. Otello lovers should take note, so should any lover of opera on film. Von Karajan has done it again."